The Case of the Missing Bees: It's the Flowers, Dummy

| Tue May 29, 2007 5:58 PM EDT

Today's Salon features a round-table discussion that's the real bees' knees on the disappearing bee problem. The scientists seem to agree that the precipitous drop-off in domesticated honeybee populations (no one keeps track of wild bee populations) was likely caused, at least in part, by the unavailability of nutritious pollen. (The theory that cellphones are doing it didn't get much traction.) Jeffery Pettis, who heads the research program at the USDA's honeybee lab, observes that "all pollinators -- which rely on a diversity of flowers -- are in decline." Eric Mussen, of the Honey Bee Research Facility at the University of California at Davis, explains:

Honeybees rely on pollen for protein, vitamins, fats and minerals. …If we are having a typical year, and the rains come, there aren't too many places in the United States where the bees cannot find their mix of pollens to meet their dietary needs. …What happens when…you get this blast of hot temperature [at] about the time the flower buds are forming and the pollen grains are beginning to form[?] …You get sterile pollen.

Lack of sufficient food leaves honeybees with compromised immune systems, making them vulnerable to parasites. Honeybees play a major role in the agricultural production of fruit and nuts. Mussen puts it this way:

Bees are a necessary part of our food production. If we don't grow our own cherries and apples, can't we just buy them somewhere else? The answer is yes. But do we want to become as dependent on foreign nations for our food as we are dependent on them for fuel?

The disappearing bees also point to another problem, explains Wayne Esaias, a NASA climatologist and amateur beekeeper. We don't have any idea how climate change will affect blooming trees:

[E]cologists in general have not paid attention to the timing of blooming and nectar availability and quality of pollen.… As a kind of a climatologist, I'm getting paid to study the impact of potential global warming scenarios on our ecology. There's a lot of research being done on carbon cycling, but without information about when the plants bloom and how the quality of the flora changes, we are in a poor position to assess the effect of changes in temperature and rainfall on our ecosystems.

In other words, the models, which are already predicting disaster, aren't even accurate because we have immense gaps in our knowledge of the interconnectedness of plants and animals. That spells serious trouble.

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